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Smoking, Alcohol, And Pregnancy

How Do Smoking And Drinking Affect Pregnancy?

Last modified: 
17/04/2013 - 15:14

Contributing Author: Guy Slowik FRCS

Cigarette smoke and alcohol can damage the health of unborn babies.

Smoking by pregnant women is associated with low birthweight and premature birth, as well as higher rates of illness (colds, bronchitis, ear infections, etc.), breathing problems, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in their babies. Birth defects of the heart, brain, and face are also more common among babies born to smokers. Children whose mothers smoked during pregnancy tend to be physically smaller than children of non-smokers, and may continue to have higher rates of respiratory illness, such as asthma, for many years.

The effects of drinking alcohol during pregnancy are also alarming. In fact, the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy is the leading cause of birth defects. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a collection of defects that may include any combination of reduced growth (before or after birth), facial deformities, a small head (likely related to reduction of brain size), and abnormal behavioral development.

FAS is by far the most common non-hereditary cause of mental retardation. In addition, pregnant women who drink are more likely to miscarry. Children of mothers who drank during pregnancy are more likely to have severe behavioral problems and attention deficit disorders, even if they have no obvious physical defects.

The dangers of smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol are well known; both are major causes of preventable and premature death. Pregnancy offers a unique opportunity for women to think about their smoking and drinking habits; it is a time when women may feel particularly motivated to change their behavior.

Smoking and drinking, however, can be very difficult behaviors to change. Many people need help-support from friends and family, medical assistance, counseling, etc-to get through the process. Most importantly, the person must want to change her behavior-it cannot be forced.

Facts About Smoking And Drinking

  • One in five adult women smokes regularly.
  • Smoking is the single largest preventable cause of death today, claiming more than 400,000 lives every year in the U.S.
  • 90% of adults who smoke started by age 21 and half of them had become regular smokers by their eighteenth birthday.
  • From 1990-2000, the number of women reported to have smoked during pregnancy fell more than 30%, from 18.4% to 12.2% of mothers.
  • In 2000, more than 60% of women age 18-54 were identified as "current drinkers" (regular or infrequent) in a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control. 82% of these women reported consuming 3 or fewer drinks per week.
  • Long-term, heavy alcohol use is the leading cause of illness and death from liver disease in the U.S., as well as a leading cause of cardiovascular illness (such as coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and stroke).
  • Research indicates that women may be more vulnerable to alcohol-related liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and brain damage than men.
  • Regular, heavy consumption of alcohol (3 or more drinks per day) may contribute to the development of osteoporosis and breast cancer.
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Smoking, Alcohol, And Pregnancy

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From Andrew Maynard - Chair of the University of Michigan Department of Environmental Health Sciences, with help from David Faulkner - 2013 Master of Public Health graduate.